As the U.S. occupation of Iraq grinds into its sixth year and activists address the militarized police response to protests at the Republican National Convention, a remarkable just-published historical document should be required reading. Ed Felien’s Take the Streets! was written in 1972, during and immediately after that year’s tidal wave of Minnesota protests of the Vietnam War.
Felien’s eyewitness account balances reporting with an analysis of politics, tactics, and strategy that remain sharply relevant to today’s anti-war movement.
Hear Ed Felien on Friday, September 26, at 11 a.m. on Catalyst on KFAI, 90.3 FM (Minneapolis) and 106.7 FM (St. Paul). The program will also be archived at kfai.org. Felien will discuss Take the Streets! on Sunday, September 28, at 3 p.m. at May Day Books, 301 Cedar Ave. (in the basement of Hub Bicycle), Minneapolis.
Felien, his shoulder-length hair now more gray than blonde, but still wearing t-shirts and jeans, is best known as the publisher and editor of the Minneapolis newspaper Southside Pride and the now-defunct Pulse of the Twin Cities, a “grassroots alternative” weekly newspaper. In 1972, Felien—who holds a Ph.D. in European drama from the University of Minnesota—was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Experimental College. He paid a price for his anti-war organizing on campus.
“They worked hard to fire me. I heard from other professors that the university put the word out. I was purged, and then blacklisted, from academia,” laughs Felien. “They weren’t interested in the kind of theater I was teaching!”
On May 8, 1972, President Richard Nixon ordered the mining of Haiphong harbor and the carpet- bombing of any place that could be deemed “military”—this policy led to huge civilian casualties. In response, student protests and strikes soared: from Berkley to Boston, from the University of New Mexico to the University of Minnesota—even in Minnetonka. For almost a week, students stopped business as usual on the U of M campus.
“The Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’—that‘s the way we felt. This is the moment—go for broke! We’re going to put an end to this war! This is no time for compromise solutions!”
“You have to understand,” says Felien, “that the 1960s really goes from 1963 to 1974—when the Vietnam War ended. You can’t really appreciate that period without the music—the Beatles, Bob Dylan’s ‘With God On Our Side’ and ‘Masters of War.’ The first day we took the streets, we built a barricade on Washington Avenue. We tore down the gate of the [campus] Armory. A fraternity on the corner had a car in their backyard that was to be towed away. They gave us the car and we turned it over in the street and set it on fire. Made for dramatic pictures—but it wasn’t stolen like the media said!“
“That same fraternity,” continues Felien, “also had stereo speakers blaring from a second story window, playing the Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man.’ That‘s the way we felt. This is the moment—go for broke! We’re going to put an end to this war! This is no time for compromise solutions!”
In his book, Felien gives a rare insider’s view on how protest actually happens: the debates and divisions, the challenges and the victories. Then as now, there were debates about passive resistance versus direct action. There were activists like Marv Davidov of the Honeywell Project (now protesting AlliantTech every Wednesday), Students for a Democratic Society (resurrected on some campuses last year), faith communities, and others similar to those in today’s peace movement.
Perhaps the most significant difference between 1972 and now is the military draft. Felien argues for the draft to be reinstated. “If everybody is subject to the draft,” he says, “then everybody has to think about what that means. Do I support the war? Am I willing to go to Iraq? Right now, it’s easier to not think about it. It’s easier to think about Darfur. We had motivated students in 1972 because they were subjected to the draft and being sent over to commit genocide!”
“If everybody is subject to the draft, then everybody has to think about what that means. Do I support the war? Am I willing to go to Iraq?”
Also, notes Felien, “it’s more unlikely that drafted soldiers will fire on protesters than professional soldiers will. There was a political movement inside the military during the Vietnam War, primarily among drafted soldiers.”
In the wake of the RNC protests, tactics and strategy are up for debate. Student protests in 1972 went beyond candlelight vigils to what Felien calls “a kind of insurrection”—a movement that took place across the country, reversing the escalation of and, finally, ending the Vietnam War. Felien packs in a great deal of critical analysis while telling a dramatic story that can’t be put down.
Take the Streets! is a counterweight to the “politicians and generals” perspective of traditional history—especially history written about war and peace. Ed Felien has given today’s activists inspiration as well as practical knowledge.
“I think of (WWII conscientious objector and lifelong peace activist) Dave Dellinger calling his autobiography More Power Than We Knew. That’s a beautiful slogan. We do have a lot more power than we believe. It’s in the interest of the government and the ruling class to get us to think we’re weak and powerless.“ Felien smiles broadly. “We put up those barricades to say to people, ‘I want you to stop and think about what’s happening to all of us.’ That’s the point of a barricade: not to close something off, but to open something up!”
Lydia Howell, a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m. For several years, she wrote for Ed Felien’s publications Pulse of the Twin Cities and Southside Pride.